Published in Panhandle Biker Online Magazine, June Issue http://www.panhandlebiker.comThe Ride
The pipes on the big Kawasaki rumbled pleasantly when Steve started it up that morning. He was dressed for a cool morning ride in what passed for Spring in the Florida Panhandle; jeans, leather jacket, gloves and a smile that left no room between his sunglasses and his chin. Steve was a lanky, tanned guy in his mid forties who seldom had time to take from his family and work responsibilities to spend on himself. This day would be a rare opportunity, wife and kids visiting grandma, the shop closed for inventory, and nothing ahead but the big Nomad, a tankful of gas, and the road. Sunrise in the Panhandle was as glorious as the sunsets, but it was usually wasted on the commute in to work.
The worry and age lines began to break up into smooth skin as Steve headed North on U.S. 231 out of Panama City with the sun obliquely striking the back of his leather jacket. He had in mind a ride through the big piney forests towards Tallahassee and the hills one couldn't find around Panama City, and then down to Carrabelle on the Coast. Wicked Willy's served a mean burger down in Carabelle, and there were always bikers there on the weekends to talk to. The ride back to Panama City along the coast would take him past Apalachicola, Sopchoppy, Port St Joe, and Mexico Beach. All in all, a pleasant ride that never failed to relieve the stresses of everyday life and broaden the joyous smile on a happy biker's face.
Steve pulled off at the Hardee's just before taking the turn onto Highway 20 to grab a steak biscuit and a cup of coffee just as the sun had begun to burn off the ground fog.
He passed an old timer in a sad looking old 50's style pickup who nodded good morning as he went inside. When Steve came back out, the old timer was leaning against the back of the old pickup, staring at the big Kawasaki with frankly puzzled eyes. "Is that a Harley?" the old guy asked. Steve smiled at the old man and said "Nope, it's a Kawaskaki that was designed to look like a Harley, but it cost me a lot less." The old man never took his eyes off the big bike as he said "I had me a Harley back in the 50's when I was a young feller." He chuckled "I was right sporty in them days. You just out ridin', or are ya travellin'?" "Just ridin'" Steve said, "Thought I'd head on down to Carabelle and check out Wicked Willy's 'bout lunchtime." The older man pulled his eyes from the bike for the first time during the conversation and looked Steve squarely in the eyes. "You need to be careful headin' down through that country son, you'll be ridin' straight through the middle of Tate's Hell. That there's some strange country."
Steve looked curiously at the old storyteller, and waited for some kind of explanation. The older fellow acknowledged Steve's curiosity with a nod of his head and a glance at Steve's still almost full cup of coffee as he reached into the pocket of his overalls for a box of Bugler tobacco and some rolling papers. Steve waited patiently as the old man carefully creased the rolling paper and poured out a small amount of the tobacco onto it. The man handled the paper with swift, sure moves at odds with his ancient wrinkled appearance, and pulled a battered Zippo lighter from his pocket. Placing one foot up on the bumper of the old truck, he lit the cigarette, slowly exhaling smoke from his nostrils. With a sigh the old man looked up into Steve's eyes and began his tale.
"I've lived down Sumatra way all my life son, near 'bout 75 years. I remember my gran'daddy tellin' me an' my brother ole Cebe Tate's story. Somewhere's around 1875, gran'daddy wasn't sure, ole Cebe got riled up about a panther that was killin' his cattle. Folks in them days lived hard, and they'd kill a man over their cattle, much less some senseless beast. Cebe took his two best huntin' dogs an' his ole long tom shotgun and went after the big cat, follerin'his tracks down into the swamps southeast of Sumatra. Nobody knows 'zackly what happened ta ole Cebe down in them swamps, but some says a week, an some says 2 weeks later, ole Cebe crawled up outta them swamps down around Carabelle. He'd lost his dogs and his long tom an' his knee was swolled up to beat the band. Said he'd laid up under a water oak after he lost his dogs and got hisself snake bit tryin' ta cool off in the shade. The fellers that found him said he told them that, an then he said somethin' mighty peculiar. He told them fellers "My name is Cebe Tate boys, an I been in Hell." With that ole Cebe just rolled over an died.
Steve waited silently as the old man took another deep drag on the handmade cigarette and his patience was rewarded as the story continued. "Ole Cebe was 'bout your age when he walked in them swamps boy, but when he come out an died his hair was hangin down his back like a old woman's, an' it was white as beach sand...like he'd been out there in them swamps for 30 years." Steve's eyes widened as he took in the tale, and he watched the old gentleman's face for any sign that this was just another tall tale.
He sipped at his coffee, getting cold in the cup, and waited to see if more was to come. The old man put his hand to his mouth and coughed, then took another drag while he watched to see if Steve was patronizing him. "You're an awful polite young feller, nobody much pays attention when I start talkin' 'bout the old days." Steve smiled and said, "My momma would have smacked my mouth with the back of her hand if I had interrupted one of the older folks when I was a boy, an' I guess I never grew out of the habit of listenin'." The old gentleman smiled and said "Good upbringin' never hurt anybody boy. Ya tend ta learn a lot when ya listen." He took a last drag on the cigarette before stripping the butt down, folding the paper, and putting the scrap in the top pocket of his overalls. "I don't rightly expect that anybody has actually been hurt down in that area that I recall, but I can testify before the Good Lord hisself that things just ain't right down among them swamps. Sometimes folks do get lost in there, an' it's right hard to find yer way out. Some folks say that a compass just goes plumb crazy in there, ain't good for nothin. I know for a fact that a man can lose track a time, like when 15 minutes seems like an hour, or when an hour feels like 15 minutes." Steve considered this last comment for a few seconds, sipped his coffee, and said "Well I reckon I'll just stay on my bike, and keep it on the roadway so I don't get lost." He smiled at the old fellow and thanked him for the story. "You take care now!" he said as he climbed back on his bike and started it up. The old man smiled back and said "Shore is a purty motorcycle son!" as he waved goodbye and headed inside the Hardee's.
Steve opened the bike up a little on Hwy 20 as he headed towards Hosford, and the cutoff down to Carabelle. As he made the turn onto County Road 67 to Carabelle, he discovered he was a little uneasy. "I've been down this road 10 or 15 times" he thought, "and I've never had a problem or any indication that this was anything but another old country road." The small tightening in his chest lightened up and he relaxed a bit and enjoyed the scenery; all the same, he cranked the bike up to about 70 to cover the 40 or so miles to Carabelle just a little faster than usual. He thought about the marina in Carabelle for a while, then anticipated the conversations he would strike up with the folks at Wicked Willy's. Maybe someone there could tell him more about Cebe Tate or about strange goings on in Tate's Hell. He glanced down at his speedometer, still on 70, and glanced back up again just in time to catch the sign saying "Carabelle-28 miles." Steve caught his breath and raised his wristwatch towards his face to check the time. 45 minutes...and he'd only come 12 miles at 70 miles per hour. "That can't be right, you're letting yourself get spooked by a story told to you by an old man who is probably retelling his story right this minute." Steve shook off the rising feeling of dread and concentrated on the scenery. "I'm gonna relax and forget all about that old man and his story" Steve thought, "and I ain't gonna look at my watch again until I get to Wicked Willy's no matter what happens. Steve was a little shaken by the time he reached Carabelle. Several times he thought he had seen a couple of dogs sitting back in the woods just inside the shade of the old water oaks. Once he had spotted some movement; that nearly stopped his heart until he realized the motion was caused by a pretty good sized bear moving along paralell to the road. He was fairly certain his speedometer had read over 80 until he reached the town limits, but he never really looked.
As Steve sat down at the bar at Wicked Willy's and ordered a beer he stared down at his watch. Chill bumps stood out starkly on his forearms. The Seiko said nearly 3 hours had passed since he had made the turnoff down County Road 67...40 miles away. As he downed the cold beer right from the frosty mug, Steve hoped with all his soul that no one would talk to him at all until he got home.